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Jakarta globe

by Jennie S. Bev

In five short years, Facebook’s members have reached 200 million worldwide. If it were a country, it would be ranked fifth in size after China, India, the United States and Indonesia. It is the fourth largest democracy by far.

No wonder it has been receiving the attention of Indonesian Muslim clerics as well. In late May, 700 religious students and clerics from East Java attended a public forum on young women’s Islamic boarding schools, and ultimately determined that overusing Facebook and other social networking sites was haram, or forbidden.

A few days later, Din Syamsuddin, the chairman of Muhammadiyah and the deputy chairman of the Indonesian Council of Ulema (MUI), clarified that social networking sites, just like mobile phones, e-mail and other common forms of technology, were neutral: they could be used for both good and bad purposes.

Still, the harm of almost being “fatwa-ed” was done. Muslims and non-Muslims alike always feel the pinch when a fatwa declares something or someone as haram.

Fatwas are notoriously life-altering, but what are they? A fatwa, or religious edict, is not a “fatwa” per se in Indonesia.

Indonesian Islam is Sunni, not Shiite, which means a fatwa has no legally binding implications whatsoever. They are, however, a strong moral force designed to influence public policies. In Indonesia, Muslim clerics have somewhat equal standing with other moderate and nonreligious intellectuals. They are trendsetters with something extra — a standpoint under “religious dogma.”

To religious people, anything dogmatic is believed to have a strong adherence pressure. All psychological, however, I must say. That is the strength of a fatwa.

In Shiite countries like Iran, a fatwa is legally binding, which explains why Salman Rushdie had to take to exile after a death fatwa was proclaimed by Ayatollah Khomeini in 1989. Even though Rushdie rushed to apologize a few days later, Khomeini insisted that his apology would not be accepted and that he should be killed even if he repented and recanted for his fictional work.

The disturbing thing with that fatwa is the thousands of religious followers who demanded both the banning and the murder of the author. This showed how powerful a fatwa is, especially when it is issued in a Shiite Shariah society.

Professor Abdullahi An-Na’im, an expert in Islamic law at Emory University in the United States, argued that the fatwa against Rushdie was in actuality a fallacy on three counts.

First, assuming Khomeini was the undisputed ruler of an Islamic state, or dar al-Islam, which in this case was Iran, his jurisdiction did not extend to a non-Islamic state or, dar al-harb. Rushdie was a British citizen, so Khomeini’s fatwa did not have any legal authority over him and his actions. Second, even if Khomeini was bestowed with universal authority over both Islamic and non-Islamic states, Rushdie would have the right to defend himself before punishment could be imposed. Third, the complete defense against any charge of heresy and apostasy is repentance.

In conclusion, whenever Muslim clerics issue a “haram fatwa,” we should not panic. We need to find out its credibility by delving into the substance, the jurisdiction and the context within which it was issued.

In Indonesia, a fatwa is simply a human expert opinion, with emphasis on “human.” It is a recommendation, a “consumer beware” sign, advice, suggestion. Therefore, whether something is sinful or not, we should leave it to God’s discretion in the afterlife.

Indonesia is a democratic secular country based on Pancasila and not on Shariah laws. And a fatwa is not a legal instrument. This fact alone is a strong legal basis to nullify Shariah-based or inspired bylaws in local municipalities.

Thus, if you are a Muslim in Indonesia, should you be following clerics’ fatwas? The answer is simple: use your best common sense, reasoning skills and discernment. A fatwa in Indonesia is merely an opinion, and humans, as we know, are prone to error.

Regardless of his high standing in society, a cleric is not a representative of God. He is merely a person who studies religion in-depth.

We should not meddle with God’s prerogatives. A fatwa, after all, might not be a “fatwa” per se.[]

The Jakarta Globe, June 8, 2009

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